The small research study, conducted at the University of Leeds, involved delivering a short daily therapy of a small, painless electrical current to the ear over two weeks.
Its findings, which were published in the journal Aging, suggest that the therapy may slow down one of the important effects of ageing and help people to grow old more healthily.
“The ear is like a gateway through which we can tinker with the body’s metabolic balance, without the need for medication or invasive procedures,” said lead author Dr Beatrice Bretherton from the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds.
“We believe these results are just the tip of the iceberg.”
However, further studies are necessary to understand the long-term health effects of the therapy.
The nervous system, which controls processes such as digestion, breathing and blood pressure, has two branches – the sympathetic and parasympathetic – that work alongside each other to keep the body healthy.
When people get older, the balance of these two branches shifts as the sympathetic branch, which prepares the body for high intensity “fight of flight” activity, becomes dominant over the low intensity parasympathetic.
This imbalance makes older people more susceptible to new diseases and leads to the breakdown of healthy bodily functions as they age.
Scientists have previously found that stimulation of the vagus nerve at the ear, which some people say feels like tickling, can improve the balance of the nervous system in healthy 30-year-olds.
The new University of Leeds study discovered an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity after the therapy, bringing the nervous system into a healthier balance.
Researchers also found individuals who displayed the greatest imbalance at the start of the study experienced the most pronounced improvements after the therapy.
Dr Susan Deuchars, a senior author on the study, said: “We believe this stimulation can make a big difference to people’s lives, and we’re now hoping to conduct further studies to see if tVNS [transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation] can benefit multiple disorders.”
The study was conducted by scientists from the University of Leeds and funded by the Dunhill Medical Trust.
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